By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, June 16, 2006 – Ongoing efforts to provide better protective gear for soldiers also benefits other servicemembers, a senior Army officer said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing here yesterday. "The Army's Number One concern is force protection," the service's chief force-development official Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes told Capitol Hill legislators. In fact, Army research teams, he said, have developed and fielded better body armor, improved helmets and enhanced vehicle protection systems.
Yet, "we're a member of a joint team," Speakes said. For example, Army efforts to develop better body and wheeled vehicle armor, he said, benefits soldiers and Marines alike.
The Army also is partnering with the Navy and Marine Corps to devise methods of defeating improvised explosive devices employed by enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Speakes said. IEDs cause the most U.S. combat casualties in the war against terrorism.
By pooling brainpower and resources the armed services can "work for common solutions as we look at a battleground that is increasingly challenging for our men and women who are deployed-forward," Speakes said. One solution involves an improved integrated body armor vest, Speakes said, that features improved ceramic plate-armor as well as added protection to guard soldiers' upper shoulder and side areas. About 20,000 sets of the improved body armor have now been issued to troops in combat zones, Speakes said. About 200,000 sets of the improved body armor are slated for issue by December 2006.
The new body armor is the best that technology can provide at present, Speakes said. But at an average weight of about 31 pounds, the new armor isn't light. However, "we continue to improve and work with everything we can to try to find new technologies and new opportunities," Speakes said, noting several new ideas are now being evaluated. "We will improve and will continue to make soldiers safer," he said.
New, improved head protection called the advanced combat helmet is being issued to the field to replace the Kevlar helmet issued since the early 1980s, Speakes said. The old helmet, he said, limits a wearer's upward vision, interferes with the new body armor, and doesn't seat well on a wearer's head. Speakes said the new helmet has improved ballistic protection, weighs about 2 pounds less, and is trimmed down at the front and sides to provide a better field of vision for wearers.
"It is much more effective operating in today's complex battlefield," Speakes said. The Army began fielding the new helmet in 2002, he said, noting more than 600,000 have been issued to soldiers. Providing enhanced armor for Humvees used in Afghanistan and Iraq has been another important task, Speakes said. "Up-armored Humvees continue to be an area of great concern," Speakes said. "They are the primary combat platform that soldiers are using in Iraq."
Speakes said the Army is working to provide Level 1-type Humvee protection to new additions to its fleet featuring factory-installed vehicle armor, ballistic windows, and air conditioning. Last year, the Army met theater commander's requirements for enhanced-armor, Level 1 Humvees, he said, and expects to do so again this year.
Level-2 equipped vehicles with factory-supplied, field-installed supplemental armor will gradually be phased out, he said, while Level 3 variants with jury-rigged armor or no armor at all are prohibited from leaving forward operating bases. About 18,000 factory-armored Level 1-type Humvees will be delivered to combat zones by spring of next year, Speakes said